Recent Commonplace Entries


“If the Union’s primary objective in those circumstances turns out to be punishing the citizens of the outgoing country for their decision – even if that means causing great damage to the remaining countries – that is hardly a great advert for EU membership. If this does turn out to be the case, the sooner Britain leaves, the better.” (David Gunnlaugsson, former prime minister of Iceland, in the Spectator, August 24)

“Academic life is a withdrawal from the fight in order to utter smart things that cost you nothing.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, according to Stephen Budiansky in NYT Book Review, September 8)

“‘I had the gut feeling in the 1950s,’ he wrote in ‘The Essential Wallerstein’ (2000), ‘that the most important thing that was happening in the 20th-century world was the struggle to overcome the control by the Western world of the rest of the world.’” (from Immanuel Wallerstein’s NYT obituary, September 11)

“In the war, you learned to take nothing for granted. Even continuation of life. My father’s brother, Rex, joined the air force and he was killed. That was a big blow to Mom, because they really liked each other a lot. I sometimes think she’d rather have married him than my father. One day we were in Bournemouth in the evening and suddenly she screamed, ‘Rex!’ and started sobbing hysterically. And it was the very moment he was shot down over Egypt.” (Jane Goodall, from NYT interview, September 15)

“‘We literally gave up a lot during the bankruptcy and the American taxpayer gave up a lot,’ said Ashley Scales, 32, a G.M. worker walking the picket line outside the Hamtramck plant’s main gate. ‘We gave up twice because we pay taxes and we gave up in the contractual agreement. And now the corporation is making more profit than ever and they still want to play games.’” (from NYT, September 17)

“Writing in The Journal around the time the book was published, Mr. Ingrassia asserted that in return for any direct government aid to G.M., ‘the board and the management should go.’ ‘Shareholders should lose their paltry remaining equity,’ he wrote. ‘And a government-appointed receiver — someone hard-nosed and nonpolitical — should have broad power to revamp GM with a viable business plan and return it to a private operation as soon as possible.’ He added: ‘Giving GM a blank check — which the company and the United Auto Workers union badly want, and which Washington will be tempted to grant — would be an enormous mistake.’” (from the NYT obituary of Paul Ingrassia, September 17)

“For instance, the words peace and cooperation. They immediately produce radiant smiles – the gastric juices are at work. Yet neither word has any meaning outside a specific context. In an abstract sense, the most peaceful place on earth is a cemetery, while cooperation, say, with a criminal is deemed complicity and is punishable by law in any country. It’s simple, isn’t it? Yet I could not explain these simple truths to my interlocutors. The Pavlovian conditioned reflexes, developed over decades, proved impossible to overcome. To this day there is such an absurdity as the Nobel Peace Prize. Peace with whom?” (from Vladimir Bukovsky’s Judgment in Moscow, p 293)

“Meanwhile it was this senseless ‘pursuit’ of the phantom of happiness in which that eternally young America was engaged. It was back in Roman times that cynical Europe reached the conclusion that you cannot run away from yourself and can only better yourself through persistent labor. The ones who fled to the New World did not believe this, blaming Old Lady Europe for all their misfortunes. Is it any wonder that their descendants have a sacred belief in the ‘American dream’ – that is, that you can start your life afresh, from scratch, like turning the page of a book? And if happiness is not found, pack your gear, saddle up, and ‘go west, young man!’ The average American family does not live in one place for more than five years. So what ‘accumulation of culture’ can there be if the past in America means two weeks ago, and the preceding five years are considered antiquity? Every five years America rediscovers the world, life, sex, religion – all this without any link to the discoveries of the past five years. It is an ensorcelled country, where life is three-dimensional with the fourth dimension unknown -moving forward in a state of permanent amnesia. There is a feeling that your footsteps produce no echo, and your body casts no shadow. Even applying the greatest efforts, you are unable to change anything or even leave any tracks, as if you had spent your life walking along the water’s edge at the seashore.

            And if one’s only purpose in life is to pursue happiness, success at any price, then one cannot have any principles or concepts; after all, they exist only in time. In fact, what is the worth of a reputation if a person is reborn every day? What is the worth of concepts if every five years the world is reinvented once more? A person speaking of principles and concepts is looked upon as a madman. It is deemed normal, good, and successful to be a ‘pragmatist’, an opportunist, a conformist.

            America is really a land of conformists, ruled by constantly arising epidemics of a feverish nature: all of a sudden, everyone starts jogging, because it is allegedly good for one’s health. It does not matter that the man who invented this craze died at the age of 55 while jogging – 40 million Americans continue to jog, making the earth shake. Or salt is suddenly declared to be the source of all ailments – so just try getting salt on the table in any American restaurant. Should you ask for it, you will be suspected of suicidal tendencies. I do not know, but it is quite possible that at the beginning of the century America was truly ‘the land of the free’, but hearing this today is laughable. It is hard to imagine a nation more enslaved by any craze, even the most idiotic ones, by any petty charlatans who thought it up. In the final instance, enslaved by its pursuit of success. Yet even success, perceived so three-dimensionally, temporally can only be purely material, not going beyond the framework of the old Russian saying, ‘It is better to be healthy and rich, than sick and poor’.” (from Vladimir Bukovsky’s Judgment in Moscow, pp 322-323)

“The American elite still believe in the myth of the ‘noble savage’, the innate good nature of Man, ruined by bad institutions. It professes some kind of completely antediluvian egalitarianism, but probably only one in a thousand can name the original source. As followers of a socialist Utopia in the most general, masonic version they know nothing of the subsequent development of socialist ideas, especially not their downfall. It is like a sanctuary in honor of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the same sense that North Korea is a sanctuary in honor of Stalin.” (from Vladimir Bukovsky’s Judgment in Moscow, p 325)

“People in general, and the intelligentsia in particular, are extremely arrogant, egotistic animals, considering themselves smarter than anyone else in the world, and certainly smarter than their governments. I can think of no occasion on which the intelligentsia admitted that it had been wrong, especially when it came to disputes with the lawful authority. The reason for this is probably the intelligentsia’s belief that its real abilities remain unwanted. Terrible. After all, they are the elite, and that means that they should rule the world, or, at least, people’ minds. But life, that unfair judge, has condemned them to more humble pursuits: teaching children the alphabet, curing our aches and pains, studying bacteria through a microscope, being bored in provincial courtrooms, or giving communion to parishioners and listening to their endless complaints about the injustice of life. And all around, out in the big world, completely different people make important decisions that determine the fate of mankind. Moreover, these people are not brighter, better educated, or morally worthy. How can one accept that? So a member of the intelligentsia cannot simply force himself to do his job without contrivances and pretensions. He cannot just teach children to read and write – no, he has to ‘raise future generations’; he cannot just prescribe pills for a patient and ease his suffering – no, he needs to concern himself with the health of all mankind. A priest, meanwhile, is convinced that God Himself has put him in the pulpit for the salvation of one and all.” (from Vladimir Bukovsky’s Judgment in Moscow, p 426)

“The difficulty of ‘doing business’ with communists is that they have the disgusting habit of lying while looking you in the face.” (Vladimir Bukovsky to Margaret Thatcher, from his Judgment in Moscow, p 590)

“The lesson of the literature [Francis] Bacon loved, Mr. Peppiatt added, was ‘that we don’t really know why we’re here, that we invent our purposes, that we invent our drives and aims. And then, suddenly, we’re gone.’” (from NYT, September 19)

“Yes, the most ambitious, most ascetic, most ideologically committed builder of a new life, just like a simple stonemason, feels the need to come back home in the evening. To light his lamp, open his book, and smile into affectionate, loving eyes.” (from Teffi’s Armand Duclos, quoted in Note 60 of the author’s Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea)

“ . . . indeed, my complaint against Bernard Shaw’s dialogue is that all the characters are so witty all of the time that they fail to remind us of any human being except Shaw himself.” (T. S. Eliot, in ‘Poetry and Drama’, a 1954 lunchtime talk in Cape Town, reprinted in TLS, September 13)

“ . . .a perfect combination of two important trends in Russian thought before, during and after the Soviet era: nihilism, a negative condition; and apocalypticism, a positive condition.” (musicologist Simon Morrison on the Soviet composer Galina Ustvolskaya, in NYT, September 29)

“At any rate I wanted to believe in it. It was after the ‘dekulakization’ but before Stalin’s purges. ‘What about the Kulaks?’, I asked a Russian physicist. ‘Well, we had to get rid of half a million rich peasants in the interests of the masses, but now this has been done there will be nothing more like it, and the future is rosy.’ I believed him.” (Professor Nevil Mott, from A Life in Science, p 52)

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